EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is also available in Spanish.
Amid growing concerns for the denomination's future, the 2016 General Conference authorized the formation of a commission to deal with church teachings on homosexuality and find ways to help the church stay together. The Commission on a Way Forward submitted proposals that were considered by the delegates at the 2019 special called General Conference.
Delegates to General Conference include equal numbers of lay and clergy members elected by annual conferences around the world. Bishops preside and facilitate the work of the delegates, but do not vote. The General Conference is the only body that approves church policy and speaks officially for the denomination.
What was decided by General Conference?
The General Conference delegates passed by a 438-384 vote the Traditional Plan, which retains restrictions against "self-avowed practicing homosexual" clergy and officiating at or hosting same-sex marriage ceremonies and requires stricter enforcement for violations of church law.
The Traditional Plan was one of the plans that came out of the work of the special commission. The One Church Plan, which would have left questions of marriage up to individual churches and clergy, and ordination requirements up to conferences, was defeated.
The Traditional Plan as approved includes:
- An expanded definition of "self-avowed practicing homosexual" to include people "living in a same-sex marriage, domestic partnership or civil union or is a person who publicly states she or he is a practicing homosexual."
- The creation of the council relations committee, as part of the Council of Bishops, to hold bishops accountable to restrictions related to homosexuality.
- Minimum penalties for clergy convicted at trial of performing a same-sex wedding. Those penalties include one year's suspension without pay for the first offense and loss of credentials for the second.
- The requirement that Boards of Ordained Ministry examine and not recommend candidates who do not meet standards regarding sexuality. It also empowers bishops to rule a candidate out of order.
- The requirement that annual conferences certify only Board of Ordained Ministry nominees who will "uphold, enforce, and maintain the Book of Discipline related to ordination and marriage of practicing homosexuals." The General Council on Finance and Administration will withhold funds and use of the cross and flame logo for conferences that fail to do so.
- Multiple changes to the complaint process under church law. These changes include requiring that bishops not dismiss complaints without reasons given; involving those making complaints in the just resolution process; allowing the church to appeal "errors of church law or administration" of church trials.
The delegates also approved an exit plan for churches that want to leave the denomination with their property. Local churches that elect to leave must pay unpaid apportionments and pension liabilities.
Two petitions were approved to deal with the pension liabilities of departing churches and the accrued benefits of departing clergy. One requires that any local church that withdraws or is closed must pay, at a minimum, its fair share of unfunded pension liability for their annual conference. Delegates amended the legislation to say "nothing in the forgoing would prevent annual conferences collecting other obligations from local churches."
The other petition spells out that any clergy members who end their relationship with a conference will be treated as "terminated vested" participants, meaning their accrued benefits would be safe and converted to an individual account balance.
In addition, delegates approved a timeline for 2019 legislation to take effect in church regions in Africa, Europe and the Philippines 12 months after the 2020 General Conference.
Where can I read the plan that passed?
The approved legislation and amendments are available at http://calms2019.umc.org
A list of the approved changes awaiting review by the Judicial Council is available in chart form.
Summaries, overviews and other resources about the Traditional Plan and each of the other proposals is available on the 2019 General Conference website.
Was any of it unconstitutional?
Yes, the Judicial Council, the denomination's top court, in Decision 1366 and Decision 1377 has ruled parts of the plan as violations of the denomination's constitution.
The Judicial Council ruled that certain portions of the plan strayed from the constitution on matters of due process and by elevating adherence to requirements related to homosexuality above all other requirements. Those portions deal with bishop accountability and responsibilities, composition of boards of ordained ministry and the examination of candidates for ministry by the boards of ordained ministry.
In Decision 1377, the church court also identified constitutional problems in legislation dealing with the exit of churches from the denomination.
Delegates amended a Traditional Plan petition dealing with board of ordained ministry nominees as well as the exit plan petition. It's up to the Judicial Council to determine if the amendments resolve the constitutional problems.
Will the Judicial Council review the plan approved by General Conference?
The General Conference delegates requested a ruling by the Judicial Council on the constitutionality of the Traditional Plan. The Council of Bishops also has requested a review of the approved exit plan for churches. The Judicial Council will address these requests at its next scheduled meeting April 23-25.
When will changes take effect?
The Traditional Plan legislation takes effect Jan. 1, 2020 for churches in the U.S. and 12 months after the 2020 General Conference for churches outside the U.S. The pension legislation took effect immediately after the 2019 General Conference. The church exit plan also was to take effect at the close of the 2019 General Conference, but is awaiting Judicial Council review. Any portions of the plan ruled unconstitutional will not take effect.
How did each delegate vote?
Delegates vote by secret ballot. The voting system generates final results based on a tally of all valid votes. There is no record of how individuals vote. This is to protect all delegates so they can vote their own conscience.
How many delegates were from each country?
The special General Conference session had the same delegates as General Conference 2016 unless annual conferences chose to elect new delegates.
The number of delegates was set at 864 — about 58 percent (504) from the United States and 30 percent (260) from Africa. The remaining delegates (90) are from the Philippines, Europe and Eurasia as well as 10 from "concordat" churches with which The United Methodist Church has formal relationships. Thirty-one delegates were absent during General Conference, mostly because they could not obtain visas.
How will delegates be selected for the General Conference in 2020?
Each annual conference elects lay and clergy delegates from among its members. The number of delegates assigned to each annual conference for 2020 has been announced.
Can the 2020 General Conference change the outcome?
Each General Conference makes decisions on the submitted requests before it. It is possible the 2020 General Conference may receive similar legislation and delegates will make their own decisions. The actions of one General Conference do not bind the next General Conference. Every General Conference can alter or revise any previous actions or adopt new policies within the limits of the Constitution.
What is the best way for me to express my concerns or support regarding these decisions?
What if I have other questions?
Share your thoughts, feelings and questions with your pastor or district superintendent. They are best equipped to have conversations and offer guidance for your particular congregation.
Ask The UMC responds to questions every day and can help you find answers or the best contact.
This content was produced by Ask The UMC, a ministry of United Methodist Communications.